I had already been in my last area with two different companions. While it was unusual to have three different companions in a single area I had had three companions in my previous three areas so getting a third companion was not unexpected. I had two transfers left and while my mission president usually did not put missionaries into an area for only two transfers it did happen. So I was sort of halfway expecting to be transferred to a new area for my last two transfers since my current companion, Elder Larson, had only been there for one transfer.
But on the morning of transfers we went to the mission office (it was only a short bus ride away from my area) to find out who was being transferred. We walked through the door and the office elders quickly told my companion that he was going to be transferred instead of me. I asked who my new companion would be and all anyone would tell me was, "Elder Tanner, I'm so, so, so sorry." I think someone even gave me a hug of condolence. I finally had to corner one of the APs and get him to tell me who my new companion would be (he was a little surprised that no one had
He told me my new companion's name, but it was a missionary I had never heard of before. I went out to talk to a few other elders who had also come in to find out where they were going and who their new companions would be. There was one Elder who asked my who my new companion would be and I told him. He looked at me and said, "What did you do to be put with him?" We talked some more and he asked me about some of my other companions. I listed them off to him and at each one he winced at the name. At the end he looked at me and said, "Does President hate you? Why would he keep putting you with so many bad Elders?"
Despite my apparent legendary list of "bad companions" according to everyone I talked to this last one would be the one to top them all. About this time Elder Dacoli, who was a friend of mine, arrived. Elder Dacoli and I had never been companions but we had been in the same zone a few times, and we had worked together occasionally and we even had one very special spiritual experience together. Elder Dacoli was the nicest, most Christlike person I have ever had the pleasure to know in my life. Preciously when he had asked me who my companions were he would always have something good to say about them, even for the ones who were quite insufferable. I am sure that Elder Dacoli could find something good to say about each and every person he ever met. Which is why when I told Elder Dacoli who my new companion was his response surprised me.
I mentioned who my new companion was and all he said was, "Oh. Well Elder, good luck." That was perhaps the most damning thing I could have ever imagined Elder Dacoli to say. He didn't even offer to say anything positive about this Elder. I began to wonder what I was getting myself into.
I don't have the time or energy to compress the next six weeks into a single blog post, but I'll give you the highlights. I'll call my companion Elder A.
On his very first day in the area I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because I had learned from so many of my previous companions that to have charity and to not criticize or judge were critical for being a good missionary and also a good person in general. So my initial thought while walking around with Elder A was to give him an opportunity to show me who he was before I made any judgements.
Because I had been in the area for three months I knew it pretty well and I could have just gone where ever I wanted without telling Elder A and he would have had no idea. But I was committed to making this a good companionship so I would stop occasionally and talk to him and explain to him where we needed go and why. We had one set appointment with the rest of the afternoon free. He seemed resistant to going to our appointment, but he eventually consented. Unfortunately the person we were looking for wasn't there so we had to turn to finding people.
I consulted a map of the area and decided to go to a particular neighborhood where I had never been before. I told this to Elder A and he immediately questioned why we were going there. I said that I had been in almost every other neighborhood but this was one I had never before visited and I felt that we needed to go there. He said that we shouldn't go there. We discussed it for a while until finally he asked which direction we needed to go to get there. I pointed north, down the street and he promptly started walking south, in the opposite direction. I had to hurry up to catch up with him. I asked him where he was going and he said, "I don't think we should go that way."
I tried to reason with him but it really didn't work. I got him to turn at the next block, but every time I indicated which direction we needed to turn he would go the exact opposite direction. After a while I stopped talking to him and tried to subtly get him to go in the direction we needed to go. After a few twists and turns (I knew the area very well and had a good mental map) I knew we were back on track and he had no idea we were headed in the direction I had originally planned to go.
When we finally got to the particular street that I had felt we needed to go to Elder A looked down the street and said, "Now that you have wasted our time getting us here, now what?" I indicated a house on the corner and he promptly went to the one on the opposite corner (which actually wasn't a house, it was a small shop and after a brief and awkward conversation with the person working there we moved on). I got him to move down the street stopping occasionally to talk to people. There was one person who was not interested and I said good day to them by my companion persisted and tried to set a time to come back to talk to them. Awkwardness ensued (we never saw them again).
As we moved down the street it turned into a minor battle, with Elder A throwing himself at every person who showed no interest and curtly ending conversations with every person who showed a grain of interest. There was one young man sitting outside his house plucking on a guitar. We approached and I introduced myself. I gave a brief rundown of who we were and the message we were sharing. At that moment the young man said the words that every missionary dreams of hearing on a first encounter, "Hey, that sounds really interesting I would like to learn more about your message. We can talk right now because I have time, and maybe you can come back some other time and we can talk some more."
Elder A heard those words and promptly said, "Well it's been good talking to you but we need to move along." and walked off. My jaw dropped down into the street. I ran after my companion and caught up with him at the end of the block. I asked him what he was doing and he said, "He obviously wasn't interested." To which I replied, "He told us he was interested."
For the next six weeks this same scene played itself out over and over. If I said we needed to go one way he would go the other. If I thought someone was progressing he would disagree. Elder A contradicted me in every way possible. It got to the point that members were approaching me and asking if the mission president knew about Elder A. I told them he did. I knew the mission president knew about him because I did something I had never done before. I requested a transfer, but the mission president turned me down.
It was about this time that I was talking to one of the APs. We had gone to high school together so he was willing to give out more information than normal. He said that the decision to put me with Elder A was made at his first meeting with the mission president after he became an AP. He said that they stood there with a map of the mission, with all the missionary pictures and started matching up companions. When they had nearly finished they had three or four Elders whose pictures were left at the bottom of the board and they didn't know what to do with them. For some of them they just stuck them off in their own area and hoped they didn't do anything stupid.
But for Elder A they had a hard time because they had to find someone to be his companion who would not get mad and hit him in the face (something that apparently happened before). They finally decided to give him to me because they knew I wouldn't hit him, and fortunately I didn't prove them wrong.
After six weeks I couldn't stand it any more and asked my mission president for a transfer. He just told me that I only had to survive six more weeks and then I could go home. I really didn't appreciate hearing that. It was one moment when I really didn't feel like sustaining my priesthood leader.
That evening Elder A and I were back on the street with me doing our usual, not telling him where we were going and hoping he wouldn't suddenly decide to do something stupid. There was a less active member I had been trying to find for a while and I wanted to stop by his house. As soon as Elder A figured out that we were going in a specific direction he began his standard practice of taking random turns and trying to steer us away from where ever I wanted to go. Eventually I got us to the right street (we only had to circle the block two or three times before I got him close enough to turn down the right street).
About half way down the block Elder A realized that we were getting to where I wanted to go and promptly went to the opposite side of the street. I walked up to the house to clap only to realize that my companion was standing 40 feet away down the street. I went back to try to get him to just cross the street but the harder I tried the worse it got.
Finally something in me snapped and I did something I have never done with anyone since. I got confrontational. I looked at Elder A and demanded to know what he was doing. He waffled behind some excuses that he didn't think we should be here or he didn't think it was worth trying to find this person, but I didn't let it go like I had before. I kept pressing and demanding to know why he was so resistant to crossing the street. I told him that he didn't even have to talk, just cross the street. He continued to refuse and then asked why I was getting upset.
I really didn't want to do this in the middle of the street, but I really didn't have any other option. I told him bluntly and directly, "Elder, you are destroying the work in this area. You are an active impediment to the work of the Lord." Elder A responded by saying that I was destroying the work just as much and began to list of ever minor infraction I had ever committed, including wasting time walking long distances only to find that the people we were looking for were not home. He listed every personality flaw that he thought I had (or the ones he had enough mental wherewithal to know about).
I told him that really didn't want to have this discussion in the middle of the street since it would be a very bad idea to have people see two Mormon missionaries arguing in the street. I insisted that we go back to our apartment but he wanted to have it all out there in the middle of the street. After a while I finally convinced him to go back to our apartment.
As soon as we got in I sat down with him and again told him that he was destroying the work of the Lord and was an active impediment to the Church. He again told me that he was no worse than me. I asked him why he contradicted me on every decision and refused to go anywhere I had decided to go.
Finally after six weeks Elder A opened up and began to be honest with me. He said that our mission president had threatened to send him home, and if he was sent home from his mission he would be too embarrassed to go to Church so he would probably just leave the Church. So when our mission president had read him the riot act he had decided that he would strenuously keep the mission rules. Unfortunately in his mind "keeping the mission rules" meant contradicting me. Before he had met me he had apparently overheard one of the Elders in the office talking about me and my previous companion Elder Larson. The office Elder had remarked at our teaching stats, which were unusually low, and was wondering if we were doing any work out in our area.
Elder A took that and assumed that I was the laziest, good for nothing, rule-breaking-est missionary there ever was and came to the conclusion that in order to be a good missionary he needed to contradict every single decision I ever made. He told me that for the last six weeks he had intentionally been making my life difficult because he had it fixed in his mind that I was a bad missionary. All this time I had just been thinking he was stupid. I had no idea that he was malicious as well.
I acknowledged that I was not a perfect person and even accepted some of the things he had listed off as to why I was a "bad missionary", but insisted that minor personality flaws or even just basic human traits did not make me a "bad missionary". I again reiterated the fact that by actively creating disharmony in the companionship he was actively destroying the work of the Lord. I then quoted to him D&C 1:19-23 which reads:
19 The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh—I emphasized the "weak and simple" and said that I do not have to be a perfect person, nor live up to Elder A's standard of perfection in order to proclaim the gospel. I only had to give all that I am and the Lord would make up the rest.
20 But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world;
21 That faith also might increase in the earth;
22 That mine everlasting covenant might be established;
23 That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers.
That night we came to a kind of a truce. He agreed to stop contradicting me in every decision and we both agreed to do the work we needed to do.
In the weeks leading up to this confrontation I had often wondered why this Elder was on a mission. He barely knew the doctrine, he did not get along with other missionaries. His first companion had apparently hated so much that he had to be moved in an emergency transfer (I hear physical violence was involved). Elder A took just about every thought and twisted it around in such a way that it made me wonder just how much lead paint he had licked as a child. I could not understand why he was not sent home. He was confrontational, irrational, had broken just about every mission rule possible without actually breaking any commandments. In my mind it made no sense to keep him there in the mission field.
So I began to pray.
I prayed and asked to know why Elder A was still on a mission and had not been sent home already. The answer came not all at once but through a series of revelatory experiences and through the gift of discernment such that I learned things I could never have learned any other way.
Elder A had grown up in a very poor neighborhood in an especially poor South American country. For the first 10 or 12 years of his life he had lived in a mud hut with a cardboard roof (a kind of very stiff paperboard coated in tar to make it water repellent). When he was an early teen his family had managed to get a free house in a government housing block. It had two rooms and was made of very basic kiln fired building blocks. He never got far in school but his family had joined the Church and he had gone on a mission out of genuine desire to give back to the Lord for what the Lord had given him. His family was too poor to provide any help so the full time Elders in his branch had provided shirts, pants and shoes so that he could go on a mission. Our monthly stipend that we got (at that time was ~550 pesos or ~$200) was more money than he would typically make in six months. He had never felt so rich in his entire life. He had never been able to afford the food he was now eating. He relished in the the sense that he could talk and people would listen to him because his entire life he was poor and no one listens to the poor.
All this power and wealth went a little to his head. When our mission president had told him that he needed to follow the rules or be sent home, he may as well have told Elder A that he would be cast into hell for all eternity because it had the same effect. That's when he became my companion.
Over the next few weeks there were minor incidents where the spirit nudged me and said, "Look. That is why he wasn't sent home." There were little things that happened that may seem minor to our understanding but were great in the sight of God. Because of my personality there are people who I would have a hard time talking to about the gospel. There are people who would have a hard time talking to me about anything for that matter. If there is someone in my area that cannot hear the gospel because their personality does not match mine that is OK because somewhere in the mission there is usually another Elder or Sister who can reach them and, when the time is right, the Lord will rotate those missionaries in and put them in contact with those people.
With Elder A there were people who were very special or very unique who would have a hard time hearing the gospel from any other missionary. But Elder A was just the right person at the right time to contact a few very specific people, people who did not join the Church as far as I know, but in the eternal scheme of things they needed their chance to hear the gospel.
After several weeks of observing and learning I was praying one night about my companion when I got the distinct impression and received a clear answer to my prayer. It said, "He is mine. I will do with him as seemeth me good. He is a tool in my hand and as long as he is here I will use him to do my work. He is not perfect but neither is anyone else. I know my servants and I know how to use all my servants in the way that is best for them. I will do the same for him as I will do for you. For all who will be my servants, I will use. My knowledge is sufficient that I can do my own work, even with the weak and simple things of the earth. Remember,
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."My servants are my own and I shall not lose them, and they will do my work."
10 For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater:
11 So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.
12 For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree: and it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
From this I learned to trust in the Lord, because He knows so much more than we do. After that I was perhaps the only one in the entire mission who had anything good to say about Elder A. I began to see him as God saw him and it changed everything I knew about him. There were so many other missionaries who wanted to offer their negative assessment but from that time on I always strived to say only good things about him when talking to other missionaries. I think I had more good to say about him than my mission president (sometimes I wonder if my mission president understood why he never sent Elder A home). I don't know if anyone noticed that I only had good things to say about Elder A but I know that God noticed. And he thanked me for it.